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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

4.08  ·  Rating Details ·  22,781 Ratings  ·  2,847 Reviews
Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

In p
Hardcover, 319 pages
Published February 11th 2014 by Henry Holt and Co. (Georg von Holtzbrinck)
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Deep Gill I'm amazed that off of the amount of information that someone could gather in a lifetime during Charles Darwin's era, he managed to come up with such…moreI'm amazed that off of the amount of information that someone could gather in a lifetime during Charles Darwin's era, he managed to come up with such revolutionary ideas at the time that it founded new fields of study and groups like the International Committee on Stratigraphy, which tell us so much about the Earth's history, could build off of. The fact that we can point out fallacies in his theories and fill the gaps of misinformation with new evidence and findings helps show how much further along we have come in the time since.

To me its food for thought, posing the question of what future investigations will reveal as inaccurate.(less)
Deep Gill The initial chapters that establish our current knowledge through past events, and historical works and discoveries are sourced either in footnotes or…moreThe initial chapters that establish our current knowledge through past events, and historical works and discoveries are sourced either in footnotes or through visits to museums and sites. Later chapters have interviews with people who have either published findings (such as the concept of the K-T extinction, formation of the anthropocene extinction idea) or who are in the middle of the research (at the Great Barrier Reef, in the forests of Brazil). These people share with us their views on what is happening and what will happen in the near future, so even if something described can't be labelled as a fact, it sounds factual and everything seems to be an educated conclusion.(less)

Community Reviews

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Feb 11, 2014 Amanda rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, blog
Looking for a good horror novel that will keep you up late at night? One that features the most remorseless, inventive, and successful serial killer to ever stumble into the written word? One whose body count grows exponentially as his appetite becomes more ravenous, never sated? One who is so adept at killing that he does so without even seeming to try? Well, I have just the ticket: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is as frightening as it gets, people, and the villain here is us: ...more
Riku Sayuj

Dial M for Murder

This is a dark and deeply depressing book, trying hard to be hopeful — on the lines of Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See.

Kolbert's book reminds us that we could be the last couple of generations to witness true diversity, maybe the last to see such magnificent and delicate creatures as the amphibians.

The story of the Sixth Extinction, at least as Kolbert has chosen to tell it, comes in thirteen chapters. Each tracks a species that’s in some way emblematic — the American mastod
Helen 2.0
Nov 15, 2016 Helen 2.0 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fic, read-16
*hides in apocalypse-safe bunker and cries*

A goosebump-inducing nonfiction read! The Sixth Extinction is told in a part textbook, part narrative style; the author gives readers hard facts mixed into detailed personal accounts of her research trips. In 13 chapters, she tells the stories of several species, some long extinct, some still teetering on the brink of extinction, all with one common enemy - us.

The best part of the book is that Kolbert isn't trying to blame the human race or make her re
Aug 29, 2014 David rated it really liked it
Recommended to David by: Preeti
This book is a very engaging examination of extinctions of animal species through the ages. Elizabeth Kolbert adds a wonderfully personal touch to many of the chapters, as she describes her visits to the habitats where various species are dying out. She accompanies scientists and ecologists as they delve into extinctions, past and present. Some biologists are gathering up endangered species, putting them into special reserves and zoo-like habitats where they might be able to survive.

There is no
A well balanced tour of apparent causes for five past massive extinctions and for the current epoch of the human-caused “Sixth Extinction”. The relatively sudden acceleration of extinctions has a lot of consensus among scientists as defining a new age, the “Anthropocene”.

The author is a journalist who demonstrates a sound knowledge about how science works and its slow and contentious process of reaching consensus conclusions. She travels around the world to visit scientists and sites that are si
Jun 22, 2015 Melki rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

I don't recall ever reading a book that SO made me want to curl up in a ball on the floor and just SOB.

The book ends with a chapter entitled The Thing With Feathers, which is hope, according to Emily Dickinson. (Or Woody Allen's nephew, if you know that joke.) Yet this chapter contains some of the more dire information, not to mention the most tear-inducing quotes:
Apr 20, 2017 Diane rated it really liked it
This book both awed and depressed me.

From page one, Kolbert writes an impressive survey of how destructive mankind has been to the planet. She gives a brief history of the five mass extinctions that have happened, and travels around the world to report on species that are currently going extinct. But the big problem now isn't a giant asteroid -- it's humans. We are such a lethal force that we can unwittingly (or just greedily) wipe out entire species at alarming rates.

There are a lot of good st
Kolbert’s premise, that we are likely in the midst of the Sixth Period of a great extinction in the world’s history, is “a most awful yet interesting” idea, to quote Darwin out of context. Kolbert shares recent (in the past forty years) scientific discoveries, theories, and test results which many of us may not have had a chance to follow with the diligence of a scientist. She is not a scientist but a journalist who has interviewed scientists, and her wonderful easy style makes it simple for us ...more
Dec 26, 2013 jeremy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nature, science
on the dedication page of her landmark 1962 book, silent spring, rachel carson quoted humanitarian, biocentrist, and nobel peace prize winner albert schweitzer thus, “man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. he will end by destroying the earth.” in the ensuing half century since carson’s watershed work first saw print, evidence aplenty has proven the prescience of schweitzer’s sentiment with distressing rapidity. in a new book as incisive and imperative as the late ms. carson’s, ne ...more
Feb 18, 2016 Max rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Kolbert makes a compelling case that we are in the throes of a mass extinction citing example after example of our destruction of the environment and its inhabitants. Fortunately she is a gifted writer, so despite the bleak message we don’t just put down this important book in despair. Reporting on scientists investigating threatened species, she identifies the many ways that we are putting all life at risk. Sometimes our unrestrained native instincts are responsible, others the shortsighted and ...more
Sep 28, 2016 DeB MaRtEnS rated it really liked it
Shelves: creepy, nonfiction, health
Most depressing book that I've ever read. The physical science of man's injury to Earth began since he emerged as a species, and now is at its zenith. In spite of the evidence, not much is being done to reduce the damage. I felt sicker and sicker as I read on, and I hated picking the book up once I'd put it down. As a species, humanity is self-serving and aggressive. I've watched Trump pooh-pooh climate change, knowing that our oceans are becoming acidic which is going to kill off microscope mar ...more
Jan 30, 2014 Cwiegard rated it really liked it
Wide ranging exploration of species extinction. The first half of the book covers how we came to understand the history of mass extinction. The second half probes the human role in the current sudden rise in animal and plant extinctions- especially through our role in driving global warming and ocean acidification.

While Kolbert's information here is frightening, her presentation is understated and she studiously avoids politics. This is a work of science journalism, not environmental advocacy.
Feb 25, 2015 Daphne rated it it was amazing
Shelves: quest
This one should be required reading in highschool. It will teach one more about the world and humanity than The Scarlet Letter or its ilk ever could. It's a book about wonder at the natural world and evolution, and a walk through of why most humans suck at sharing the globe.

My initial reaction:

Then I had a good cry.

Feb 02, 2014 Preeti rated it it was amazing
“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it's not clear that he ever really did.” (p235)

I got The Sixth Extinction through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It was a lucky pick because I hadn’t heard of the book or the author before that, but the subject matter was right up my alley.

This book is about the extinction crisis that’s currently ongoing and that is caused by humans. In Earth’s history, there have been five major extinctio
Aug 13, 2015 Jessaka rated it it was amazing
"no snow, now ice" by photographer Patty Waymire, National Geographic

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
~~Chief Seattle

When I was a child my favorite books were the Golden Nature Guides about insects, birds, sea shells, and so on. I learned many insect names, as well as those of the butterflies and other animals. I a
Rebecca Foster
(3.5) Feeling smugly secure about how much you care for animals and the environment, or how low your personal impact is? You won’t be after you read this.
Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly.

Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with n
Justin Evans
Jul 15, 2015 Justin Evans rated it liked it
Shelves: history-etc, essays
I'm glad this book was published, and glad it got so much attention. On the other hand, I wish it had been much better. The first half is solid, inasmuch as it has some information about the history, and historiography, of extinction. The second half gets a little head-banging-against-a-wall, with example after example of currently endangered or recently extinct species, all told in the same palatable way.

So, beware reader, that if you are like me, you might want to skip this book. It goes to g
Mar 06, 2014 Michael rated it did not like it
I was introduced to this author and book on a television show. I bought the book to my Kindle right then. I have not been this disappointed in a book in a long while. More than a quarter of the length of the book was dedicated to notes. She touched on history as archeology has helped define it with reference to the past extinctions. I think, because she was being a writer, she needed to tell me things I didn't care to know, like what she and her research mates had for breakfast before they set o ...more
Dec 10, 2013 Michelle rated it really liked it
Shelves: mine-dead-tree, gg, 500
I learned many new things and I laughed a few times as well. That's pretty much a win for non-fiction.

Humanity's impact on the environment tends to either be presented in a deliberately polarizing manner for political reasons or presented with assumptions of scientific knowledge which most lack. The author did an amazing job of explaining the science behind the impact in layman's terms without omitting details that frequently don't make "news" stories on the topic. She even took the time to exp
Apr 06, 2016 Sebastien rated it really liked it
Very good read. Depressing as heck, but if you want a good overview of the challenges facing our planet in regards to humans and how we are changing the earth and its ecosystems I recommend this. There is no doubt in my mind that we have started a cascade of environmental collapses that is going to be hard to curtail. We have to try and minimize the damage, the challenge will be beyond difficult, but it is a noble goal.
Apr 15, 2016 Barbara rated it really liked it
In this well-researched book, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert casts a strong light on the damage humans are doing to planet Earth. In one example Kolbert describes declining populations of the golden frog, which is rapidly disappearing from all its native habitats. Turns out humans have inadvertently spread a type of fungus that infects the skin of amphibians and kills them. In another example, almost six million North American bats have (so far) died from a skin infection caused by a different ...more
I read this all in one go because I knew multiple pauses would likely just extend the misery. It’s particularly hard to read a book such as this knowing things will likely only get worse with the donkey that is our President leading one of the world’s most powerful nations. We’re talking billions of lives. And millions of species. Including us.
Feb 19, 2014 Dorothy rated it really liked it
Shelves: nature, pop-science
In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.
- Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich

As far as science has been able to determine, there have been five mass extinctions of life on Earth in the history of our planet. The first of these occurred at the end of the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic era about 450 million years ago. The second occurred less than 100 million years later in the late Devonian period. There followed the End-Permian extinction
Daniel Chaikin
May 23, 2016 Daniel Chaikin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Doesn't the title say it all? It's quite a topic - what we are doing to the world, and what we have done and what we are likely going to do. This mostly wasn't new information to me - but the acidification of the oceans was new. I mean I see the headlines and I know it's a issue, but I didn't understand the nature of it, or make the connection to shells and reefs.

What I like about the book is, first of all, that it's getting read. The more people who read this the better. It's good information.
Tanja Berg
Feb 24, 2014 Tanja Berg rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"What happened to the frogs? We don't hear them calling anymore." In South America they're all succumbing to an introduced disease. One of the problems with the global world we live in is mobility - we bring species that would normally never had a chance of contact together. Diseases can spread world-wide in a manner that was unthinkable just a few hundred years ago. It's not just the frogs. In North America, the bat population has dropped to next to nothing due to a fungi from Europe, with whic ...more
Apr 04, 2014 Kate rated it really liked it
Clue's in the title: this was never going to be a light read. But Elizabeth Kolbert is such a great communicator, and knows just when to leaven the harrowing / depressing extinction narrative with memorable (the more effective for not being rhapsodically overwritten) descriptions of the yet -- if barely -- existing wonders on our planet e.g. of a graptolite fossil she finds in Scotland, “It’s shaped like a set of false lashes, but very small, as if for a Barbie.” or, of corals spawning,
“The sc
Mar 07, 2014 Jaylia3 rated it it was amazing
It sounds strange to say I enjoyed reading this book about the increasingly profound and potentially devastating impact humans are having on our home planet, with an especial focus on the animals and plants who share Earth with us, but enjoy it I did. It’s a riveting topic, the history of our world and our species, and Elizabeth Kolbert has the knack of writing about science so it retains all its natural fascination while still being accessible to laypeople. She takes the reader with her back in ...more
Elizabeth A
Dec 28, 2015 Elizabeth A rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, non-fiction, 2016
This Pulitzer Prize winner for General Nonfiction (2015) was my book club selection this month, and I listened to the audiobook, which is really well narrated by Anne Twomey.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari was my absolute favorite book last year, so I was primed to read this one. This non-fiction science book briefly covers the major and minor extinction cycles that have occured over the life of the planet, as well as current theories as to what caused them. The book i
Jan 20, 2016 Ярослава rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Мене непокоїть і робить нещасною тема того, як ми нищимо екосистему, вибиваємо тварин, організовуємо кліматичні зміни, які гарантують, що наступне століття успадкує вже геть інший і значно бідніший світ (скажімо, через ocean acidification - до якого ми доклалися - Великий Бар'єрний Риф навряд чи протягне до 2100 року). Я відчуваю велику й безпорадну видову вину перед усіма цими безборонними доходягами, які були богу душу винні, але отак їм з сусідами не пощастило; тож навіть думала була цю книжк ...more
Taryn Pierson
Feb 02, 2017 Taryn Pierson rated it really liked it
My husband Adam and I discussed this book as part of our He Read, She Read video series. Because despite what some people would have you believe, climate change is real, scientists can be trusted, and humans have had a significant impact on the earth pretty much since our appearance on it. So yeah, it felt like a timely choice!

Fortunately for me, Adam, with his scientist mind, is more reserved in his judgment and optimistic in his outlook than I am. With the help of our (local!) beer of choice f
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  • The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be
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  • Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived
  • With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
  • Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?
  • The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
  • Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion
  • Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species
  • Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life
  • The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us
  • The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.
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“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.” 49 likes
“A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: IN PUSHING OTHER SPECIES TO EXTINCTION, HUMANITY IS BUSY SAWING OFF THE LIMB ON WHICH IT PERCHES.” 26 likes
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